Exploding Clichés: On Éric Chevillard’s Versatile Prose

December 22, 2020   •   By Daniel Levin Becker, Michelle Kuo, Jeremy M. Davies

THIS SPRING, the French novelist and critic Éric Chevillard wrote a column for Le Monde called “Sine Die,” dilating on various aspects of COVID-19 and the strange experience of domestic confinement. After its run in the newspaper ended, Chevillard continued the series on his blog, L’Autofictif, for a few weeks more. A selection of 10 entries from the sequence was published online by Music & Literature in translations by Daniel Levin Becker. In the roundtable below, Michelle Kuo and Jeremy M. Davies engage Levin Becker in a conversation about the “Sine Die” columns, the genre of pandemic writing, and the challenges of rendering one of France’s wittiest and most versatile prose stylists into English. It was conducted via Google Docs throughout the summer and early autumn — and now, as France returns to lockdown mode until the beginning of December, it enters the world in a way we can only envy.


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JEREMY M. DAVIES: Daniel, because I am awesome, I have been a Chevillard fan for many years. I discovered him — as did most of his monolingual American readers, I suspect — in the two University of Nebraska Press editions Englished by Jordan Stump: The Crab Nebula and On the Ceiling. I’d be interested in hearing how you became as awesome as I, with regard to Chevillard, if not, indeed, more awesome still.


DANIEL LEVIN BECKER: I’m afraid I still haven’t become as awesome as you in any respects, Jeremy, and to be honest I’m not liking the future outlook either. Nonetheless. I first encountered Chevillard, so far as I can recall, circa 2004 in a translation class taught by Alyson Waters, who went on to translate his Prehistoric Times for Archipelago in 2012. I say “went on to” but I remember being assigned the first few paragraphs of that book for her class, so maybe she was already at it. (That novel begins with a grumbling meditation on a dead guy named Boborikine, and I remember particularly vividly the false cognate casquette, which means cap and not casket, tripping up many of my heedless classmates and, no doubt, me.) I didn’t have much to do with Chevillard again until 2016, when Daniel Medin tapped me to translate some of his Le Monde book reviews, among other things, for Music & Literature, thereby plunging me headlong into the ruination in which I wallow still today. But in the meantime I was certainly aware of him, perhaps most acutely when he began a review of a play by my fellow Oulipian Hervé Le Tellier by saying something to the effect that every time he starts a book by a member of the Oulipo he has the sense of a sack of plaster perched precariously above him, ready to tumble down onto his head at any moment. For a time this became an Oulipo in-joke, e.g., “How’s that new plaster sack of yours coming along?”


JMD: It probably sounds better in the original. But since you’ve brought up the Oulipo, and since I follow your much-mourned colleague Harry Mathews in considering translation itself a special case of constraint-based writing, could you say a few words about what it was like to translate EC for the first time, in terms of what linguistic difficulties he presented to you, and how you overcame or fought them to a standstill? Did your, um, “training” as an Oulipian provide you with any special tools or talents with which to tackle those difficulties? I’ve been told that translating Chevillard is not for the faint of heart.


DLB: One of the first Chevillard texts I translated for M&L along with the book reviews was “Autofiction,” which comes from one of the little collections he puts out every few years of texts that are neither fiction nor nonfiction nor poetry nor, it must be said, autofiction such as we define it these days. (These are the same books from which I’m currently translating a selection for Yale.) The conceit in “Autofiction” is that it’s a sort of how-I-rose-to-greatness pep talk by a successful writer, except every instance of the word write or writing is replaced by ejaculate or ejaculating. Now, I have no idea why he chose to do this, and on some level I don’t need to know, because the resulting text is utterly delightful no matter how you frame the conceit. Being an Oulipian, though, with all the preoccupational hazards that implies — what you kindly call “tools or talents” — I wanted there to be a logic I could try to replicate. If not a constraint, then some generative principle to guide my reading and my subsequent attempt to replicate its effect in English. And for one thing, the respective French words for writing and ejaculating, écrire and éjaculer, aren’t very far apart alphabetically; it’s easy enough to imagine that the slippage from one to the other was meant to be systematic, even if the system affected only this one case. (In retrospect, Oulipian Jean Lescure’s beloved N+7 exercise likely planted that seed in my brain.) Unfortunately, search though I did, I couldn’t come up with a same-first-letter pair in English that covered the same semantic split, so that connection, apocryphal or not, is missing from my translation. Again, I don’t think the text suffers much for it, but it’s a box I would have loved to be able to check.


The prosaic lesson here, which I think is one learned quickly by any translator working on an author who really inhabits the source language — whose subject is in some way the language itself — is that there are inevitably some things you just can’t carry over without missing the point, and so to the best of your ability, to the best of the text’s willingness to accommodate such operations, you find other ways and other places to reproduce the effect. Chevillard uses a ton of wordplay too, but I’m used to translating wordplay, either directly or in the approximative way I’ve just described. The Chevy-specific thing I’ve had to adjust to is that his writerly logic very rarely obeys rules that can be pinned down or mapped out empirically. It’s almost resolutely unpredictable and unaccountable and fantastical; it doesn’t use or need the scaffolding I’ve become accustomed to with Oulipian work. I don’t know that I’d say that’s why it’s so successful, but in any case it’s required me to learn to follow his leaps and convolutions without necessarily knowing what motivated them. Which seems, now that I say it, like a valuable personal growth experience as well.


MICHELLE KUO: “Almost resolutely unpredictable and unaccountable and fantastical” certainly makes Chevillard sound like one of the last writers in the world you’d expect to take up the pen to deal with “current events,” and yet here he is writing a quarantine journal.


DLB: A little bird (of the phylum Pedanticata) compels me to clarify that this wasn’t conceived as a journal, in the sense we tend to use it in English, so much as a thrice-weekly newspaper column — that is, more a record of the zeitgeist than a cri de coeur. He did eventually move it over to his personal blog, but it’s not like it got substantially more intimate once there.


JMD: Even still, here’s an author who enjoys a certain estrangement from the drudgery of consensus reality, and yet he’s documenting — in however fanciful a form — his daily life and thoughts.


MK: I think the question is still valid! Is there an inconsistency between Chevillard’s usual mode and his role writing about the quarantine? I myself — like pretty much every writer out there, as Chevillard says is “inevitable” — started a journal when lockdown began. I even had the grandiosity to announce to my students they, too, would keep one. (Document this world-historical event! Now!) But almost immediately I felt bored by my journal, deflated by its sluggish tone and reports of pasta consumption. Because I am such a good teacher, at some point in my class I just stopped mentioning the journal and hoped students would forget about it. Did either of you keep your own quarantine journal, or any journal?


JMD: I can see how, particularly for Anglophones, working in the long wake of Defoe, it might indeed be inevitable for writer-types to get out their notebooks as the plague rampages through town. But I’ve never kept one. I am of that philistine breed who don’t believe in writing anything down that isn’t either for the purposes of direct communication or else intended to amuse strangers. I answer letters and I write silly fictions. That’s all. And if you were to say to me that I tended to favor authors who seem likewise disinterested in personal expression for its own sake, I wouldn’t argue with you. Chevillard has always appealed to me for being — at least in English, at least before the virus! — someone who invents rather than confesses. But this is a false binary, because letters or journals or newspaper columns or suicide notes can all be written in a spirit of play, and for the amusement of an audience, rather than (just) to unburden oneself or keep a record of one’s day, natch.


DLB: I like your false binary! Gonna keep invention versus confession in my back pocket.


I’m not sure I agree that it’s inevitable that writers keep journals in plague time, though maybe I’m just lying to myself. I wrote a few short pieces about albums I was listening to a lot during the lockdown, and then asked other people to keep the series going, and even during normal times I keep a bunch of weird logs and lists and notebooks and Tumblrs and shit, so I clearly possess the drive Chevillard is describing in that first selection M&L ran in English — but something in me is reluctant to cop to the impulse. Probably because it is grandiose, as you put it, Michelle — at least if you intend for other people to read your journal. Maybe what something like a global pandemic does is create a sense of permission for writers to lean into their innate grandiosity, on the rationale of Yes but won’t posterity want to know what it was like for me to weather the plague by eating too much pasta and feeling bored by my own elective activities? I didn’t read a ton of other quarantine journals, but the impression I got from friends who did was that most of them were underwhelming, at least to read in real time, because the impulse was grandiose but the available subject matter got threadbare really quickly. In this respect of course Chevillard prevailed the same way he always does, by taking these topical tightenings of everyday life as premises and following them to absurd places, and talking about himself only in an extremely veiled, fabulist way.


MK: I like how you put that — a “veiled, fabulist way.” It reminds me of a quote from The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster, in which the protagonist keeps a diary:


March 5. A personal diary holds no meaning or sense unless it is sincere. Falsehood, the key principle of all literary activity, would go against nature here. Only the truth matters: there will be a sensitivity with regards to the truth that borders on shamelessness. It is important for the details to be accurate, on the whole: so we will be precise, in-depth.


Are we to take that at face value? Or is this an insincere commitment to sincerity?


DLB: Phewph!


MK: When do you think, in his quarantine journal, we get closest to him, or to something that feels sincere, whatever that means?


JMD: And am I correct in remembering that EC has even taken some flak from French critics for building his work on whimsy and irony rather than what are taken to be More Serious Matters?


DLB: Wow. You’re ganging up on me now.


JMD: We’re doing good cop/pompous cop. Guess which one I am?


DLB: It really is hard to tell when he’s being sincere, so erudite and well spoken and disarmingly unserious is the carapace that is, for want of a better way to put it, his manner of writing. And also because so many of his columns feel more like a very imaginative mind thinking through the implications of this or that fact of a pandemic — what’s cooking like? what about exercise? have 500 words about homemade masks on my desk in the morning! — than like a personal diary, properly speaking. But every now and then you do sense a little agitation under the surface. I feel it in the one about the hothead and the sage, for instance. I sense a little wistfulness every time he talks about a we instead of his own experience — which is actually a lot, even when it’s just about his family or how he’s befriended a cellar spider. And I think most of all I feel it when he writes about nature. There’s a piece that’ll be in the Yale book that’s framed as a parliamentary address to mankind by the seven remaining members of the animal kingdom, and it’s eloquent and language-y but also just devastatingly sad. His attention to the natural world betrays this awe, and this melancholy, that intellectual curiosity alone can’t explain.


MK: On the subject of melancholy, could we get back to Chevillard’s ejaculation?


JMD and DLB: [Uncomfortable silence.]


MK: When I first started reading that “Autofiction” piece, I thought, “Oh god, more male humor about their jizz.” I read it only because you’d translated it, Daniel. But as I read, I found myself reluctantly smiling, and then — Zounds! — l was laughing. (I’m reading The Magic Mountain now and they use “Zounds,” so I’m trying to bring it back. Is it working?)


DLB: Time will tell.


MK: In that piece, Chevillard explodes all these clichés we have about writing — and with the mechanism of a cliché itself! e.g., that writing is masturbatory. He flies through each cliché: Writing makes you alcoholic. (“Yes, there are times when I drink in order to ejaculate.”) Writers are blowhards. (“I am invited with increasing frequency to schools to talk about my ejaculations.”) Writing ruins your home life. (“My wife feels neglected. Always ejaculating, she says to me sadly.”)


There, as elsewhere, he doesn’t try to defend writing with moral pretensions, but instead with inventive wordplay, persistent playfulness, and a spirit of self-accusation laced with helpless pleasure. In interviews, he has said, “I feel alive only while creating text.” And more: “I can’t bear readers. They’re so tiresome! Honestly, mind your own business!” I found it liberating to hear him speak this way about writing. I began to consider the weird possibility that a writer’s compulsive pleasure — the kind that services oneself and has no higher aim — and one’s artistic integrity are actually linked in a profound way. And indeed, he says he admires writers like Beckett who “are beholden to nothing,” who have no need for fortune or glory; he laments that writers today have “no idea the extent to which they’re compromised.” My question: Do you see a refusal to be compromised reflected in his work or life? (And what do you think he means by compromised?)


DLB: First of all, “exploding clichés” is a perfect description of what Chevillard does all the time — at least in his more jocular writing — and also what is surely the most consistent source of maddening puzzles for the translator. To an almost systematic degree he takes these idiomatic expressions, whether they’re trite or ultra-literary, and picks them apart so that they’re somehow simultaneously more and less than the sum of their constituent parts. (I think he’s sort of like a rapper in this respect, but that’s a discussion for another time.) An example: At the end of the second paragraph in his journal entry about nature flourishing in the absence of human activity, he says, of the infamous pangolin, “Je suis certain qu’il préfère traîner quelques casseroles que de mijoter dedans à feu doux.” Traîner une casserole — literally “dragging a saucepan” — is a particularly evocative way of saying someone has a dubious reputation, that they’re followed at all times by the noisy clangor of whatever scandal they’ve been embroiled in. Chevy’s joke is that the pangolin would surely rather drag around a saucepan than simmer inside of one — i.e., it’d rather be hated than eaten — and there’s no real way to do that in English because we don’t have any expressions that I’m aware of involving shame and cookware. So I settled for an aural solution instead of an idiomatic one: “I’m quite certain it prefers a checkered past to a chopping board.” (Though now that I’m writing this out it occurs to me that I could have said “it’d rather be embroiled than boiled.” Ah, hindsight.)


Your instinct about what he means by compromise, that it’s closely associated with being too concerned with what other people think of your work, seems right to me. I think we all know what this is like, whether it manifests in what you call “self-accusation” (which, by the way, I think is a really bewitching quality of Jeremy’s writing) or in what you’ve referred to elsewhere, Michelle, as “self-implication” (and which I think is a powerful part of yours) or in preciousness about agonizing over every last comma before showing anyone a draft of anything (um, guilty). But I think for Chevillard this sense of compromise is radically mitigated by his prolificacy — by the frequency of his output, by the pitiless dailiness of things like this quarantine column and his daily blog. He embraces the potential for any one piece of writing to be compromised, maybe — in the sense of being negatively received, or not measuring up to what he wanted it to be, or just not being very good — but refuses to let that one piece implicate him for too long. He keeps moving, and (as someone who definitely misses 100 percent of the shots he doesn’t take) I can see that momentum eventually becoming its own existential validation, a smaller but more sustainable one than public opinion.


Is that nonsense? That might be nonsense. But I will also say that I find it really encouraging, even touching, to consider that he’s someone intimately acquainted with the ways a work can be inhospitably received by the reader — he is, after all, a highly accomplished author of scathing book reviews — and he still manifests this profound and abiding belief in continuing to write, in putting himself out there constantly. That’s not the same thing as the sense of burning emotional revelation we often associate with people whose writing we praise as “necessary” — most of the time he comes across as impossibly cool and collected in his clever deployment of humor, even if he does dilate toward the end of the column about humor and tragedy — but again, the fact that he just keeps on doing it speaks for itself.


JMD: Lest we make all Chevillard’s unseriousness sound too serious, we should emphasize just how funny he is.


DLB: Yeah, and it works in multiple registers. Like, the fact that he has this savant and dignified knack for subverting clichés also makes it all the funnier when he talks about semen or sex toys (which happens weirdly often, at least on his blog [thereby undermining, I suppose, what I said earlier about his blog not being that much more intimate than his newspaper writing]).


MK: I laughed at these lines: “Good luck, Chuck! Grow a pair, Baudelaire!” How did you figure out how to translate a riff like this? (And do you have a pool of rejected lines you can share with us?)


DLB: Man, that one was a journey. The original is “Tu parles, Charles! Va te faire lanlaire, Baudelaire!” The first half is a common albeit arcane saying, something like “fat chance!”; the second half, minus the Baudelaire part, is this 19th-century expression of unclear (at least to me) origin that translates roughly to “get lost.” So in context, where Chevy is talking about how naïve he was to think he could resist the influence of the coronavirus on his writing, this isn’t actually that complex an idea, just a sort of “Yeah, how’s that working out for you?” addressed to himself. But of course, as we’ve discussed, Chevy’s never seen a figure of speech he couldn’t sabotage, so he uses Charles Baudelaire to bind the two halves together. At first I wondered if I could get away with replacing Baudelaire with someone else — Fat chance, Jack! Hit the road, Kerouac! — but ultimately wasn’t confident enough to go out on that limb by myself, so here we are. Rejected alternatives: like we care, don’t you dare, life ain’t fair, cut your hair, don’t be square.


MK: Ha! Those alternatives are pretty hilarious. Cut your hair, Baudelaire! I’ll bet he had long hair.


JMD: He had more forehead than hair, as I recall. At least toward the end. And, of course, Chuck was also a translator.


MK: Chevillard has some very kind praise for translators: they are “as gifted as the writers they translate but devoid of presumption and petty ambition.” “They manifest a genuine delight in writing, even as it brings them no dividends in fame nor even […] in rightly earned recognition […] [T]hey mostly remain obscure.” Does this description of translators seem accurate to you? What is the relationship between translation and fame? (Are you comfortable with obscurity?)


DLB: I’ll ask the questions here, Michelle.


I dunno, I’ve been reading back over these columns and remembering how much fun it was to puzzle out solutions to things like “grow a pair, Baudelaire,” but also finding some sentences I have no meaningful recollection of translating. The places where I feel my own presence are still those places where I’m sort of hoping you’ll take note and applaud them, not just the sentences themselves but my resourcefulness in reproducing them. So that seems kind of suspect, motivation-wise.


I’m always pleased when translators are talked about, whether or not I personally like their work — it’s a net positive for culture when we recognize and celebrate their labor, their gifts. And yet as soon as the discussion leaves behind the nitty-gritty sentence-level stuff and ascends to a more theoretical realm, I tend to check out a little bit. Not sure how to reconcile those things, except to say that I like thinking of translators as artists but I think it’s just as important to think of us as technicians, and that sometimes you want a beautiful mural and sometimes you just need an even coat of paint. (Not to mix metaphors.) But I suppose part of what’s rewarding about translating a challenging author like Chevillard is that the greater the challenge, the greater the odds someone will be impressed if and when you succeed.


MK: I deeply adore this sentence describing the writer: “When he’s at the beach he acts like everyone else, collecting seashells and then lying on his stomach and shaping the sand into a little breast with his hand.” Is there something about confinement, as Chevillard suggests, that exposes the writer as a particular kind of person — someone who isn’t quite present outdoors, someone who lives in a fantasy world where the antidote to a world-destroying virus is to assemble letters on a screen? (I guess I am also just asking, Don’t you love this line, too?)


DLB: I do! (I tried to get the phrase “sand-boob” in there, but it felt like too great an intrusion on my part.) This is a great thought, but I don’t know what to add besides my enthusiastic assent — I never thought I would say this admiringly, but I think this is actually more of a comment than a question.


MK: Oh no, I’ve become one of those people. “Sand-boob” is excellent.


DLB: Come to think of it, he also briefly mentions sand-boobing in his most recent book (as of this moment), Monotobio. Maybe it’s an ongoing fascination of his! Maybe I’ve been misreading his level of sincerity this whole time.


JMD: Maybe we have it all backward. It’s not so much that keeping a journal is un-Chevillardesque as that this “situation,” with all its absurdity, its necessarily inward gaze, and then the reams of occult idiocy being dredged up and exposed because of that gaze, is somehow Chevillardian? I guess I’m asking: If the quarantine had not occurred, would Chevillard have been obliged to invent it?


DLB: I feel like if the quarantine occurred and Chevillard did not exist, we would have been obliged to invent him.


JMD: Typical of a translator to try and shift responsibility.


MK: Since deconfinement, I have entered at least three different mask pop-ups in Paris where the people selling masks are not wearing them. Can you explain what is going on?!


DLB: I absolutely cannot.


JMD: We could even say that our capacity for denial in the face of hundreds of thousands of deaths is likewise Chevillardian in its farcical devotion to systems of thought utterly divorced from lived life. But then, Chevillard would never be so frivolous as to suggest, in his fiction, that such behavior could ever, in reality, occur.


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Daniel Levin Becker is a translator, editor, critic, and Oulipian. He lives in Paris.


Michelle Kuo is an associate professor at the American University of Paris. Her book, Reading with Patrick was a runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and explores literacy, inequality, and incarceration.


Jeremy M. Davies is a writer and editor living in New York.


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Banner image: “En bateau! 3ème jour de déconfinement. Paris 20ème. 13 mai 2020” by Paola Breizh is licensed under CC BY 2.0.